Attempts by religious pressure groups such as Christian Voice to censor productions will become increasingly prevalent if the theatre community continues to capitulate as it did over controversial Sikh play Behzti, manager of Birmingham Stage Company Neal Foster has warned.
Foster’s call to the theatre industry to take a stand against all pressure groups coincides with the launch by members of the International Theatre Institute of a series of discussions to address the threat of censorship to British theatre and to decide what practical action can be taken to support venues and companies when faced with outside pressure.
Speaking to The Stage, he said: “The Rep made a terrible mistake when it cancelled that show. The whole Jerry Springer debacle – I felt it was a direct ramification of the events in Birmingham and hardline groups feeling they could affect the decisions of arts organisations. I can’t believe that the protests around Jerry Springer – the Opera would have happened before Behzti.
“Official organisations need to be involved to help theatres make the right decision. The staging of Behzti is the first thing that needs to happen – we lost the battle and we are now suffering the effects. The artistic community put up its white flag – now we need to support whatever organisations are suffering the consequences.”
Stephen Green of Christian Voice cites the successful religious opposition to Behzti, which was eventually pulled from Birmingham Rep Theatre, as inspiration for his damaging campaign against Avalon musical Jerry Springer – the Opera. Foster says that the industry needs to make a stand in the face of increasingly militant opposition from both religious and secular groups.
Felix Cross, director of NITRO black theatre company and organiser of the discussions being held by ITI members, explained that the decision to hold further talks came when Janet Steel, director of Kali Theatre – the company behind the original production of Behzti – revealed at a recent ITI conference that she was concerned about the physical risks of putting on future productions.
Cross commented: “We must do something about it. We would like to push the discussion forward about the notion of censorship for theatre.”
He also called for Arts Council England to take a more involved approach if further protests occurred and stressed that organisations such as ACE had a duty to support cultural institutions in more than simply financial terms.
He concluded: “When something from outside comes to threaten the existence of a particular piece of work, what is the function of the arts council? Its remit to protect the arts comes into profile.”